Applied Kinetic Arts: Alan Rorie interview

Applied Kinetic Arts: Alan Rorie interview

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been doing a series of interviews with members of Applied Kinetic Arts (AKA), “a community of artists working within the medium loosely defined as ‘kinetic’. Works incorporating motion, light, sound, and interactivity are represented by the group’s ever expanding member base.” The more members I chat with, the more I’m impressed and moved by their sense of camaraderie. The talented folks who make up AKA are not just a group of artists, but they are a community in the true sense. Today, we speak with Alan Rorie. I first met Alan a couple of years ago at Maker Faire Bay Area, where I saw his Neuron Chamber (pictured above) for the first time. The steel and glass sculpture demonstrates the firing of neurons in the human brain, and I approached Alan to give him an editor’s blue ribbon for the project. He immediately smiled and said, “We won!” The “we” naturally meant the collective and he was eager to share with the crew. The vibe these folks create is inspiring.

1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I started making things when I was in graduate school at Stanford working on my Ph.D. in neurobiology. Although the work was really interesting I found it unsatisfying. So much of it was in the abstract; I was interested in the physical world, but in science you begin in the physical world but you end up in abstraction. I wanted to work more with actual physical objects, so I decided to get more involved with making things. There were always things I wanted to do but couldn’t because I didn’t have access, like welding, but when I went to Burning Man I found a community of local people involved in making crazy stuff, and doing awesome metalwork, so I became involved with them and slowly taught myself how to weld. A lot of the people in that community were my inspirations, particularly Kinetic Steam Works, and my fellow member of AKA, Nemo Gould. It’s an honor to now to be able to work alongside a lot of the people who inspired me to get involved with this kind of stuff to begin with.2. How did you first become involved/interested in making kinetic art? Tell us about the first kinetic piece you made.
As soon as I started making things, I wanted to make kinetic art because I’m very interested in engineering and design. I was also drawn to the inherent challenges of making a kinetic piece — something that functioned in interesting ways. I was always interested in industrial components like bearings, so kinetic art was natural for me to get involved with. My first kinetic piece was The Triaparator for the Steampunk Treehouse, which was a series of three fully functional brass apertures.


Detail from The Triaparator.

3. What goes into building one of your pieces? What’s your process?
My process is generally the same. I begin by doing hand sketches and brainstorming. Then I move into computer-aided design, which I love. I get as far as I can in CAD. From there, I migrate the piece into the real world. Once it becomes a part of the real world, I abandon the CAD model and work with what I’ve got. Often there are huge sections of a piece that can’t be CADed and need to be done afterwards, and I really enjoy that tension between what can be predesigned and what needs to be made and designed on the fly.

4. What’s the biggest challenge in making art that is kinetic?
Not figuring out to solve kinetic problems, but how to solve kinetic problems within the aesthetic constraints that you’re working with. Most kinetic problems have simple solutions, but often those solutions conflict with the aesthetic look of the piece. As an artist, you have to re-solve a lot of traditional kinetic problems in interesting ways. The hardest thing is getting the motion of kinetics you want, while having it look the way you want.

Rorie’s Dihemispheric Chronaether Agitator in action.

5. What’s your favorite tool/material?
The milling machine. It gives you a large amount of freedom to do interesting things with a tremendous amount of precision.

6. How has being a part of a collective like Applied Kinetic Arts helped you and/or informed your work?
It’s provided me with a group of like-minded people, peers, from whom I can draw inspiration, advice, and information. Camaraderie. Being a part of a large, collaborative projects like the ones we do in Five Ton Crane (The Steampunk Treehouse and The Raygun Gothic Rocketship), has really helped me to create work I could never create alone, and to share in a collective artistic vision.

7. Is your art strictly a hobby or is it a business? Does it relate to your day job?
It’s both. I think it’s important to consider the business aspects of art. Artists deserve to get paid for their time. Certainly there’s a tremendous amount of management of money involved for shop rent, consumables, and tools that you need to factor in. I’ve never thought of my art as a hobby. Since I started it’s always been what I want to do with all of my time, and I’ve spent the past couple of years working hard to make a living doing it, and that’s a work in progress.


Rorie’s Aperture Lamp.

I teach metal fabrication classes, so in that my art is directly related to my living. And this winter I’ll be expanding to do more custom design and fabrication. In the context of considering myself an industrial artist, I’m also interested in the process of producing objects en mass for sale, and harnessing the tools of production and industry to create art. For example, my wooden and papercraft models of the Raygun Gothic Rocketship (for sale in the Makers Market). It’s been interesting figuring out how to make those in enough number and quality to sell.

8. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
I’m really excited by the continued development of CAD/CAM and the growing accessibility to 3D printing and scanning. Also, the possibility of microbial life on Europa, a moon of Jupiter.

9. What is your motto?
Less think, more build. Another one: It’s always easier to make a hole bigger than smaller.

10. What advice do you have for people who want to get started in the kinetic arts?
Start looking around at all the objects around you, from doorknobs and lamps to drawbridges and cranes. Inspiration for interesting kinetic movements is everywhere. Start doing things. Keep things simple. Follow your interests. Use lots of lube.

Thanks, Alan! To check out more images and videos of Alan’s work, head over to his site Almost Scientific.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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